Former prisoner Alice Johnson, left, wipes away a tear during the president's State of the Union address.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Alice Johnson, left, wipes away a tear during the president’s State of the Union address.
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Donald Trump presented his racial narrative to the nation—and it was deeply problematic

By Justin Rohrlich

Donald Trump presented an extremely problematic racial narrative in his 2019 State of the Union address: He highlighted white guests as examples of exemplary citizens while pointing to his black invitees as former criminals who have been reformed and given clemency thanks to his policies.

“Last year, I heard through friends the story of Alice Johnson,” Trump told the gathered legislators, dignitaries, and guests, referring to a 63-year-old African-American woman introduced to him last year by reality star Kim Kardashian. “I was deeply moved. In 1997, Alice was sentenced to life in prison as a first-time non-violent drug offender. Over the next two decades, she became a prison minister, inspiring others to choose a better path.”

After almost 22 years behind bars, Trump told the audience, “I commuted Alice’s sentence—and she is here with us tonight…When I saw Alice’s beautiful family greet her at the prison gates, hugging and kissing and crying and laughing, I knew I did the right thing.”

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alice Johnson

Trump said he was “inspired” by stories like hers, and that the First Step Act legislation he signed last month has reformed sentencing laws “that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community.”

The president also singled out Matthew Charles, a 52-year-old African-American man from Tennessee. In 1996, Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine and was the first person to be released under the First Step Act, which was modeled on legislation introduced during president Barack Obama’s second term but deep-sixed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell at the time.

“America is a nation that believes in redemption,” Trump said to raucous applause.

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Matthew Charles

Raymond Santana, a member of the so-called Central Park Five who was wrongfully accused of rape as a teenager in the 1980s, isn’t so sure he’s buying it. Trump publicly called for the five boys’ executions in full-page newspaper ads before the boys were even tried.

“Yea I’m watching,” Santana told Quartz in an online message sent during Trump’s speech. “I need a fact checker on this…smh.”

White guests, in comparison, were presented as survivors—of war, crime, or other struggles. Trump brought up the “large, organized caravans [that are] are on the march to the United States,” mentioning that he has ordered 3,750 additional US troops to the southern border “to prepare for the tremendous onslaught.” He then directed the audience’s attention to three of his invited guests, Debra Bissell, Heather Armstrong, and Madison Armstrong, the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of a couple “tragically murdered in their home in Nevada by an illegal immigrant in January 2019.”

The New York Times notes that Wilbur Martinez-Guzman, a citizen of Guatemala, has been charged with the murders but hasn’t confessed to or been convicted.

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The Bissell-Armstrongs

During his address, Trump pointed to Grace Eline, a 10-year-old cancer survivor sitting with first lady Melania Trump as an honored guest, and spotlighted Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, who later survived the October 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, calling the octogenarian “Joshua” multiple times during his remarks.

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Grace Eline
White House handout
Judah Samet

The president applauded Timothy Matson, a police officer who stopped the synagogue shooter, and Tom Wibberley, the father of a Navy seaman who was killed in a 2000 terrorist attack.

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Timothy Matson
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Tom Wibberley

Three (white) American World War II veterans were also celebrated. Joshua Trump, a Wilmington, Delaware sixth-grader who is not related to the president and has reportedly been bullied over his last name, was in attendance but not specifically saluted by Trump during the speech.

“He is thankful to the First Lady and the Trump family for their support,” said a press release issued earlier today by the White House.

White House handout
Joshua Trump

The exception to the pattern was Elvin Hernandez, a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent whose family “legally immigrated to the United States” when Hernandez was a boy, Trump said.

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Elvin Hernandez

“Special agent Hernandez, please stand,” Trump told the officer. “We will always support the brave men and women of law enforcement—and I pledge to you tonight that we will never abolish our heroes from ICE.”